USDA Proposed Origin-of-Livestock Rule May Institutionalize New Loophole

Source: USDA

On April 28 the USDA’s National Organic Program released the long-awaited proposed rule amending their “Origin of Livestock” regulations — five years after they named it a top priority. When the USDA organic standards went into effect in 2002, pertaining to dairy farms they stated that once a farmer converted a “distinct” herd of conventional cattle, from that point forward any animals brought onto their organic farm would have to be managed organically from the last third of gestation (meaning, prior to birth).

Some industrial-scale organic dairies have abused this provision by adding conventional cattle to their herds. The proposed rule would, theoretically, put an end to this abuse because it specifies that a producer can transition dairy animals into organic production once and, after this one-time transition, any new dairy animals added to the farm would need to be managed organically from the last third of gestation or sourced from dairy animals that already completed their transition into organic production.

But some organic advocates believe the draft rule is crafted in such a way as to favor corporate agribusiness and continue what they say is “a betrayal to true organic farmers and their loyal customers.”

Factory farms, milking thousands of cows each, have been bringing in conventional cattle on a regular basis to both grow their operations and replace animals burned out by their high production management approach. This has outraged ethical family-scale organic dairy farmers whose practices produce self-sustaining dairy herds. These farmers and their supporters have been pressuring the National Organic Program (NOP) to eliminate the loophole for the past decade.

“Industrial-scale dairies, or ‘factory farms,’ generally in the desert West, have gamed the system and competitively disadvantaged the family farmers who milk cows and follow the spirit and letter of the law,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute.

The organic standards, as designed, prevent dairy producers from using antibiotics and other drugs. These prohibitions make it incumbent upon farmers and ranchers to create a healthy environment for their cattle that does not push to maximize production at the expense of their animals’ health. The industrial-scale organic dairies subvert this principle, pushing their cows for 25,000 pounds or more of milk production per year, stressing the cows, which may lead to mastitis (udder infection) and other maladies that dramatically reduce the cows’ productive life span. Their management solution has been to import conventional cattle and “convert” them to organic on a continuous basis.

According to Kastel, “These dairies are burning out their cattle and sending them to the hamburger plant, sometimes just a year or two after they start milking them, and replacing them with conventional cows that undermine the integrity of the organic label.”

Wholesale suppliers of organic heifers (young cows who have not yet calved for the first time) generally purchase one-year-old cows, who were typically raised, as calves, on “medicated” milk replacer (infant formula for bovines) that includes antibiotics and other materials banned in organics.  Once weaned, these cows were eating conventional crops, treated with toxic agrochemicals, and almost undoubtedly genetically engineered feed (all practices prohibited in organics).

In contrast, organic family farmers’ cows live such long lives, because of gentler management and better living conditions, that “real farmers don’t need to buy replacement heifers — they sell replacement heifers,” Kastel added.

Selling surplus calves creates an additional revenue stream for sustainable family farms. But even this is impacted, because industrial dairies’ exploitation of the current loophole means organic cattle receive little to no premium price in the marketplace with the ready availability of cheap conventional cattle.

The proposal by the USDA tightens the rule by, theoretically, banning the heifer ranches that are raising conventional cows and selling them, by the thousands. Instead, all cattle, as was the intent of the original regulations, are required to be managed on organic feed, and without banned drugs, from the last third of gestation. Farmers would be allowed, as they are now, to convert an existing herd of milk cows and their young offspring to organic status by providing them qualified organic feed, and shunning any of the prohibited pharmaceuticals, for one year before they officially sell their milk as certified organic.

The problem comes in what the USDA proposal defines as a dairy farm. “I wish I was making this up,” Kastel said. “To qualify as a dairy farm, all you have to do is milk one cow. One. You never have to ship any milk. You don’t really need to be a commercial dairy farm.”

Organic industry observers are concerned that agribusiness players will continue to game the system by creating, on a continual basis, new dairy “farms,” milking one organic cow each but having thousands of young conventional heifers, and then selling the entire herd of newly converted heifers to factory farm customers. They could then start the process again, annually, under new ownership “on paper,” qualifying them to convert subsequent herds on a “one-time basis.”

“If you are a non-organic dairy farmer with a herd of cows that you have bred for many generations to improve your production, herd health and genetics, you should be given an opportunity to transition the whole herd to organic production [on a one-time basis],” said respected organic dairy industry expert Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.  “If you are a start-up organic dairy operation, or expanding, there is no reason why you should not purchase organically certified animals.”

The Cornucopia Institute is encouraging organic dairy farmers, and their urban allies, to send a comment to the USDA prior to July 27, voicing their concern about continued loopholes and asking regulators to shut the door, once and for all, on conventional cattle being brought onto organic dairy farms:


The Cornucopia Institute has renewed their call for USDA Secretary Vilsack to remove the present staff director of the National Organic Program, Miles McEvoy. “These new draft regulations, with enough holes in them that they might be confused with Swiss cheese, leave the door open for corporate agribusinesses to continue to exploit the goodwill of organic consumers,” said Kastel.  “This is just one more example of where Mr. McEvoy has bypassed the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a 15-member, multi-stakeholder advisory body, that Congress required the USDA to consult with regarding all new organic regulations.  If the bureaucrats and political appointees at the USDA did not think they were smarter than the collective wisdom of the NOSB, we would likely not be in the position to have to criticize this draft rule and, potentially, delay substantive enforcement action if the department subsequently issues a new draft,” Kastel lamented.

The Cornucopia Institute feels the most cynical exploitation of the loophole the USDA is currently allowing, resulting in conventional cattle being brought onto large industrial dairies on a continual basis, is the following scenario:

Natural Prairie, a large industrial dairy in Texas milking approximately 8,500 cows, reportedly sells off all their baby cows at birth and exclusively purchases converted conventional heifers.  Why is this so competitively destructive to the legitimate organic dairy community?

Legitimate organic farmers feed their baby calves organic milk. It’s the same quality of milk consumers buy at the supermarket or their natural foods co-op. It’s valuable.  Smaller farmers might spend $30,000-$50,000 on the value of the milk they feed their baby calves on an annual basis.  Then, once the calves are weaned, they feed them certified organic hay, oats and other grains.  It’s not atypical that farmers need to purchase some of their feed to supplement what they grow themselves. Organic feedstuffs can be two or three times as expensive as conventional feed.  While these farmers are feeding their young cows certified organic feed, outfits like Natural Prairie are feeding cows during their first year of life cheap, GMO feed that, according to USDA research, is contaminated with toxic agrochemicals.

“The proposed USDA regulations , allowing conventional herds to transition to organic production in one year, need to be prescriptive to avoid abuse that will directly affect the pay price and family income of dairy producers,” stated NODPA’s Maltby.

“By specifying that the organic certificate holder is the recipient of a one-time exemption, allowing conventional animals to become organically certified in one year, the USDA has opened the door to individuals and corporations exploiting this exception by using conventional dairy livestock to continually start new organic dairies,” Maltby added.

In their formal comments to the USDA, and outlined in the organization’s Action Alert, The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wisconsin, asks regulators to tighten up the definition of an organic farm related to the one-time exemption allowing cattle to be converted from conventional to organic. Cornucopia suggests that, instead of having to milk only one cow, the farming operation be required to be a commercial dairy, inspected and permitted by the state, and have a relationship with a licensed milk handler shipping to a licensed dairy plant.  Furthermore, Cornucopia suggests that the operation be established, shipping milk, for no less than 180 days and that any animals sold have been producing milk themselves (no young converted animals, who have never been milked, could qualify to be sold as “organic”).

An even simpler solution, according to Cornucopia’s Kastel, would be to ban, outright, the sale to an organic operation of any cattle that had been converted.

It has been suggested that this stricter approach would be an imposition on small family farmers who convert their herds and later befall some catastrophe (a health emergency, death in the family, etc.) forcing them to sell their cattle as conventional without an organic premium. “The reason this loophole would virtually never be used is that, after a period of just five years or so, through the normal attrition on dairies, younger animals, ones who were born onto the organic farm, would be replacing the older cows that had been converted. Eventually there would be no converted cows left,” according to Kastel.

Cornucopia states they are encouraging the USDA to close the loopholes before they are exploited instead of creating another mess that the new draft regulations purport to be solving.

Stay Engaged

Sign up for The Cornucopia Institute’s eNews and action alerts to stay informed about organic food and farm issues.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.